The Orion space capsule flew over the Moon on Monday less than 130 kilometers from its surface, a maneuver that marks the beginning of the return trip to Earth of this first mission of NASA’s Artemis program.
By making this flyby very close to the surface, the spacecraft took advantage of the Moon’s gravitational pull to propel itself on its return trajectory.
Communication with the capsule was interrupted for 30 minutes when it passed behind the far side of the Moon. It was also to fly over the landing sites of the Apollo mission.
The essential thrust of the European Service Module main engine, which propels the capsule, lasted just over three minutes.
This was the last major maneuver of the mission, which began with liftoff of NASA’s new Artemis megarocket on November 16, for a journey that should take 25 1/2 days in total.
Now, Orion will only make slight course corrections until it touches down in the Pacific Ocean, off the US city of San Diego, on Sunday, December 11 at 17:40 GMT. She will be recovered and hoisted aboard a US Navy ship.
During the mission, Orion spent about six days in a remote orbit around the Moon.
A week ago, this new spacecraft broke the distance record for a habitable capsule, venturing just over 432,000 km from our planet, farther than the Apollo missions.
The capsule does not carry passengers, but the purpose of this Artemis 1 mission is to verify that the vehicle is safe to transport crew in the future.
The main objective is to test the resistance of Orion’s heat shield, the largest ever built, when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 40,000 km/h. It will have to withstand a temperature of 2,800ºC, half of that on the surface of the Sun.
With the Artemis program, the Americans intend to establish a lasting presence on the Moon, in order to prepare for a trip to Mars.
The Artemis 2 mission will take astronauts to the Moon, but will not land there. This honor will be reserved for the crew of Artemis 3, which will land for the first time at the south pole of the Moon. Officially, these missions will take place in 2024 and 2025, respectively.